I recently saw an article posted by a friend showing people who looked like entirely different people after such a period of yoga. Hell, maybe they were different people, or maybe they underwent photoshopping, surgery, or something else. It’s hard to tell. However, in the years since yoga became big in the West, it has been credited as a panacea of medicine for just about everything. Americans have fallen hard for it, just as some have fallen for the
natural cures for cancer. It’s hard to resist something that seems so easy and natural, even if there are just as many reports about the possible dangers of yoga, especially in a country where we really are bandwagon fans. We love the studies posted by journals such as Ayu. Bias anybody? To be fair, some have also been included in Clinical Oncology and other mainstream journals.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with meditation and taking a minute to sit back and relax and think. If putting yourself in a yoga pose helps, I guess whatever. I just think there’s something wrong with giving something more credit than it deserves to the detriment of those actually suffering from the disorders it claims to treat.
In 1988, the Southern Medical Journal punished a study that asked
born again Christians to pray for only half of the patients in a hospital coronary care unit. They wanted to test the power of
prayer as medicine. The statistics published were questionable at best, but they claimed that the patients who were prayed for achieved better outcomes. As an atheist, I can admit I have a bias against this, but my religious parents were equally angered when a member of their congregation asked people to pray that she would recover from cancer rather than actually getting real medical treatment. Similar, and equally questionable studies have been published about the
power of prayer such as a 1999 paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine that claimed that
prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care.
I will specify that I don’t have a problem with praying for friends and family members. I just don’t think it should be in lieu of medical treatment, nor should it be seen as any kind of medical treatment. I see yoga the same way. While prayer healing gathered quite a bit of hype to support it in the 1990’s, there were plenty of scientists who were quick to jump up to decry the obvious methodological errors and inaccuracies. Obviously, there was a good chance that the subjects in the original study also prayed for other patients (and their families and friends certainly could not be stopped from doing so). So it would be near impossible to really separate the two groups. Or are one group’s prayers more powerful than another, because they are in a study? A 2006 firmly reliable study actually proved that prayers provide no measurable medical benefits.
Back to yoga. Yoga has been credited by many to be a cure for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even cancer. Yes, you heard me, cancer. It has been used by some to address bad grades, and frankly, the quasi-cures claimed by supporters of yoga seem questionable at best, just like the
power of prayer.
The yoga studies that have been conducted have seriously methodological problems behind them, some of which are similar to those found in prayer research. The first problem is the definition of yoga. Just like prayers, different people practice yoga in different ways. There are various groups and types. Some believe in hot yoga while others believe that it is extremely damaging. Some people rely largely on hot yoga for weight loss, but as you may have guessed, it seems to just be water weight (you sweat a lot).
When you take into account that you also cannot measure the
dosage of yoga, you run into other problems of being able to measure the placebo effect or put a control group into place. How much yoga do you need to fix back problems? Do you need more to fight cancer? How can you guarantee that a patient in a study is actually participating fully in the prescribed amount of yoga? Do you watch them every day to make sure that they’re holding the poses for the same amount of time and in the right form?
In something of an answer to this, a systematic review of yoga and asthma was officially published in 2011. Researchers found that the methodology of published studies was poor at best, and they concluded that there were serious problems with blinding and randomization. There were also high dropout rates, which could seriously color the results as you might imagine. If you were testing diets, high dropout rates would be considered a serious flaw, which is part of the reason why the South Beach Diet has not gotten the stellar ratings they would like. The only study that offered somewhat credible bases showed that there was no measurable difference and no benefit.
The review concluded,
The belief that yoga alleviates asthma is not supported by sound evidence.
Additionally, a review was published in 2013 on the effects of yoga on schizophrenia. It noted that none of the studies were actually double blind. None of the studies blinded subjects, and only 3 blinded researchers, which is a serious methodological problem if you haven’t heard.Dropout rates were high or unreported, and the author concluded,
No recommendation can be made regarding yoga as a routine intervention for schizophrenia patients.
Again in 2013, there was a review conducted on the benefits of yoga in hypertension. The complaint in that study stated that the
methodological quality of the included trials was evaluated as generally low, and a definite conclusion about the efficacy and safety of yoga on hypertension cannot be drawn.
If you do not have serious back problems (which have actually been named as an issue with yoga) or other things that may make yoga more harmful than helpful, then go ahead and try it. It doesn’t really burn fat or build muscle, but if you find it relaxing, great. Just don’t depend on it for any measurable or real medical benefits.